Children’s Dystopia in “The City of Ember” and “The Giver”


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

Is dystopia an appropriate genre for children? There’s some debate, of course, but generally, dystopian novels can be seen as texts with the potential to increase their critical reading capabilities, to let them see the importance of civic engagement, and open up important ethical conversations. Let’s look at Lois Lowry’s The Giver and Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember series, to see how these issues are handled.

A child watching a destroyed city
Dystopia is becoming a feature of children’s fiction, with pre-teen children finding ways to deal with the destruction of the world. (Image: No War/Shutterstock)

Dystopia in The Giver

In Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver, we have the classic themes of dystopia: a totalitarian society that uses ubiquitous surveillance and extreme conformity to keep its citizens safe and giving up the most dangerous—also the most precious—aspects of life, like music, color, and love; a 12-year-old boy, Jonas, who starts to question the restrictions he has always accepted as necessary; a society that feels it’s better if most citizens have only limited access to their own history; and the eventual uncovering of dark rituals.

In this case, the dark ritual is that when people are released for the society, they don’t actually go elsewhere. They are killed. Even babies. The killing is done by Jonas’s father.

Learn more about how H.G. Wells merged utopia and science fiction.

Centralized Control in The Giver

In dystopian literature for young people, parents are often portrayed as powerless or sinister or both. In The Giver, it’s both. In this society, each community is highly standardized, with 50 children per year all kept in lockstep development and all eventually assigned careers and partners suited to their interests, aptitudes, and temperament.

A strong centralized government ensures the safety and happiness of each member of the society in typical totalitarian fashion. And history is suppressed. The mechanism for that suppression here is that the whole of history resides in one person chosen from each community, the Receiver of Memory. And Jonas is to be the new Receiver.

The Giver and Receiver in The Giver

Through his training with the Giver of the title, Jonas receives not only the culture’s history but also a number of important new sensations, pain, hunger, fury, joy, even love. And he sees new things, most importantly, colors.

“Why can’t everyone see them?” Jonas asked. “Why did colors disappear?” The Giver shrugged. [..] “We relinquished color when we relinquished sunshine and did away with differences.” […] “We gained control of many things. But we had to let go of others.” “We shouldn’t have,” Jonas said fiercely. The Giver looked startled at the certainty of Jonas’s reaction. Then he smiled wryly. “You’ve come very quickly to that conclusion,” he said. “It took me many years. Maybe your wisdom will come much more quickly than mine.”

In fact, only one year after he begins training as the Receiver of Memory, Jonas mounts a coup on his totalitarian society, leading to an uncertain ending which is part of the pleasure of this novel.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

City of Ember

A graphic rendition of a child standing in a overgrown city
In the City of Ember series, two 11-year-olds lead the people of the dying city of Ember where they see the sun, sky, and trees for the first time. (Image: Tithi Luadthong/Shutterstock)

Another children’s series that explores dystopia is Jeanne DuPrau’s City of Ember series. Ember is an underground city built, 200 years before our story begins, as an insurance policy against impending cataclysm. Fifty couples, each with two children, were ensconced in the underground city with all kinds of supplies and modern conveniences.

The city is reaching the end of its supplies, but no one knows how to leave the city. The instructions, secretly passed from mayor to mayor, have been lost. Two smart, brave 11-year-old kids, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, figure out how to escape and lead the people of Ember to the great outside world, where they are faced, for the first time, with such novelties as the sun and the sky, the trees, the horizon, and, shockingly, uncontrollable weather.

Confronting Others

They are also faced, they quickly realize, with a vast empty landscape and no food or shelter. For the next four days, the 400-plus bedraggled people of Ember walk, still led by the two child heroes. Finally, they arrive at Spark, a town with a population of just over 300 that is by far the biggest town in the area.

Here the people of Spark, who have a small food surplus for the first time in years, try to figure out how much they can afford to share with the completely empty-handed refugees, while said refugees try to be appropriately grateful while still pointing out that they are slowly starving. Inevitably, inadequate resources lead to a full-blown conflict. But, through various experiences, Lina and Doon learn about how food gets made and distributed, and how trade and conflict work.

Learn more about why teens are so drawn to dystopia.

Pre-teen Involvement

And there’s a way of reading dystopia for children as a way of subtly making them aware that at a moment when environmentalists don’t have to look very far to produce terrifying information about the fate of the Earth and its most dominant species, it’s important to think about the future. To think about the challenges that face us as we move toward it.

Lina and Doon show that pre-teens can have an impact. They should not simply sit by and be placated by adults. Children should work the problem, too. Children should use their imaginations and problem-solving abilities to synthesize information and seek solutions. DuPrau’s series opens as a dystopia but ends with an earnest belief in the rebirth of a fully functional human society.

Common Questions about Children’s Dystopia in The Giver and The City of Ember

Q: What is society like in The Giver?

The Giver has a totalitarian society that uses ubiquitous surveillance and extreme conformity to keep its citizens safe, giving up aspects of life like music, color, and love. It is a society where most citizens have only limited access to their own history. They have dark rituals where they kill those they consider aberrations.

Q: Who is the Giver in The Giver?

In the novel, the Giver (or the Receiver) is the person who keeps all the memories of the community, including those they have lost.

Q: What is the plot of The City of Ember series?

In The City of Ember series the hungry citizens of Ember are led out of their city by a pair of pre-teens in search of food to survive. They explore life.

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